Questions You May Have Always Wanted to Ask A Psychiatrist

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On Saturday, I had the honor of appearing as a guest on a radio show called Meet the Experts. The hosts of the show are healthcare professionals, but their work is in audiology (hearing problems). Thus, they don’t have much medical experience with mental health.

They had some interesting questions, ones that I wonder if others may have as well.

Is psychiatric urgent care like going to the hospital emergency room?

How do mental health professionals tell the difference between “normal” and “disordered?”

What causes mental illness?

See my expanded answers to these questions and more:

Is psychiatric urgent care like going to a hospital?

            It probably depends on where you go. Some hospitals have a psychiatric urgent care (or something similar) which might look and feel like going to a hospital. But most psychiatric urgent care clinics are more like outpatient clinics. Sigma Mental Health Urgent Care, the psychiatric urgent care where I am currently Medical Director, is certainly like a clinic. Sigma is like any other mental health office, usually quiet and peaceful, with big comfy chairs in the interview rooms, where people can feel safe to talk about private feelings of distress.

Are psychiatric patients dangerous?

            No, this is a terrible myth, and it harms a lot of people. Most psychiatric patients are just like you and me; they’re regular people just trying to get help for their suffering. In fact, since between 1 in 4 and 1 in 5 people suffer from mental illness, it’s safe to say that people with mental illness are your friends and family and neighbors, even if they have never disclosed their illness(es) to you.

            Unfortunately, the idea that people with mental illness are to be feared still persists. Because the myth exists, many people with mental illness still feel they have to hide their diagnosis from the world or face serious discrimination.

How do mental health professionals tell the difference between “normal” and “disordered?” And how is this done with kids?

            Psychiatrists go to medical school first, and learn about all medical diagnosis, and then complete a residency (4 more years of training) to become experts at diagnosis and treatment in mental health. However, we live in a time when professionals sometimes overdiagnosis milder symptoms and offer medications. I’m a vocal advocate for providing reassurance and support when appropriate, not just handing out pills to everyone who walks through the door.

            Many people still struggle to wrap their minds around childhood onset mental illness, and (having never seen a child display symptoms of mental illness) are skeptical that kids are being medicated unnecessarily. While there are kids getting more treatment than they need, it’s important to understand that childhood mental illness is a real issue. Children can have very severe symptoms, and those in serious need deserve help from highly trained professionals. Child Psychiatrists have additional training, a 2 year fellowship after psychiatry residency. This additional training helps them become experts in differentiating normal from a bona fide mental illness.

What causes mental illness?

            Mental illness is caused by a complex mixture of genetic factors and environmental factors. Some illnesses have a strong link to genetics, and others less strong. But most psychiatric illness can’t just be attributed to inheritance. Whether a viral illness brings on schizophrenia for those at risk, or childhood abuse brings on recurrent depression, there are usually factors other than simple genetics involved.

            And neuroscience is one of the final frontiers of medical research. There are still a great many open questions that research is trying to answer.


Are there other questions you'd like to ask that aren't on this list? Ask them in the comments. 

Posted on August 7, 2017 .